Email Receipts

This memo defines a MIME content-type that may be used by a mail user agent (MUA) or electronic mail gateway to report the disposition of a message after it has been successfully delivered to a recipient. This content-type is intended to be machine-processable … to extend Internet Mail to support functionality often found in other messaging systems, such as X.400 and the proprietary “LAN-based” systems, and often referred to as “read receipts,” “acknowledgements”, or “receipt notifications.” The intention is to do this while respecting privacy concerns, which have often been expressed when such functions have been discussed in the past.

– T. Hansen, Ed.; G. Vaudreuil, Ed.; Message Disposition Notification; RFC 3798; May 2004.

You can ask for a “receipt” for your email to be sent back to you when it is opened by the addressee.

Most email programs enable you to request a receipt for your email by setting the “Return-Receipt-To” option for an individual email, usually with a button or menu item. Many programs also most let you turn this feature on as the default option in the application settings or options.

When you request an email receipt, a header is added to your email requesting a confirmation email when your email is opened by the recipient. A receipt can be useful if your message is important and you need to know when the addressee opens it. For example, you may wish to phone the addressee to discuss the email, but want to wait until they have read it.

Some email programs notify the recipient of the receipt request, and allow them to confirm or ignore it, but most programs just send the receipt automatically when the email is opened. A few have an option to never send receipts.

However, many email systems, companies, and networks do not honour the receipt option due to privacy concerns. For example, you may not wish to have others know when you read your email, particularly if they are from another company or organization. Some email applications include an option at the client level to always ignore return receipts, placing privacy control in the hands of the end-user. Others block all receipts at the Internet firewall.

Web receipts. Some web-based attempts have been made to mimic the receipts available with registered land-based mail. For example, provided a similar service until disbanding in 2001 — when you sent a message with this service, the recipient received an email notifying them to go to a web site to retrieve the actual message, following which you were sent a certified and time-stamped email guaranteeing that the message was delivered.

Resources. The following resource provides more information on email receipts:

  • RFC 3461; K. Moore; Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) Service Extension for Delivery Status Notifications (DSNs); January 2003
  • RFC 3464; K. Moore; G. Vaudreuil; An Extensible Message Format for Delivery Status Notifications; January 2003
  • RFC 3798; T. Hansen, Ed.; G. Vaudreuil, Ed;. Message Disposition Notification; May 2004
  • RFC 3834; K. Moore; Recommendations for Automatic Responses to Electronic Mail; August 2004.